QUEER VICTORIAN FAMILIES: CURIOUS RELATIONS IN LITERATURE by Duc Dau and Shale Preston, eds., Reviewed by Ardel Haefele-Thomas
 

QUEER VICTORIAN FAMILIES: CURIOUS RELATIONS IN LITERATURE
Eds. Duc Dau and Shale Preston
(Routledge, 2015)
Reviewed by Ardel Haefele-Thomas on 2015-11-24.

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What is not queer about the Victorian Era? When a swiftly changing and growing legal conservatism coincides with the reign of one of the most moralizing, gender normative and heteronormative English monarchs (Queen Victoria) and with an overabundance of medical and scientific discoveries exploring sex, gender, race, class and nation, how could such an era avoid resistance and ruptures throughout society?

Over the past two decades, numerous monographs and articles have explored Victorian literature, history, culture, and art through various queer theoretical lenses. But this book makes a unique and important contribution to Victorian Studies, Queer Studies, and Family Studies first asking what we, in the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries, have assumed about the nineteenth century in Britain. To what extent have we perpetuated myths about the uniformity of a sexually inhibited culture composed solely of monogamous, heterosexual nuclear families? Even within the academy, queer investigations of the Victorian Era have chiefly entailed close readings of queer lives embedded within some mainstream novels and within sub-genre fiction like Gothic. While this book likewise reads queer characters and queer family situations closely, it breaks new ground by juxtaposing both canonical and popular Victorian literature with other works of fiction that have not yet been examined in a queer light. Charles Dickens's Bleak House, for instance, is made to converse with Elizabeth Anna Hart's The Runaway. While the latter novel has fallen into obscurity, it was in its time a best-seller for young girls and would have been discussed alongside Bleak House. Queer Victorian Families, then, examines queer elements in a wide variety of Victorian works.

In doing so, it contests assumptions that remain very much alive. While Victorianists have long recognized that the Victorian era was anything but uniformly heterosexual and monogamous, the general public is still catching up--as instanced by current reactions to the ABC Family channel's The Fosters, a fictional TV series about a queer transracial family living in San Diego, California. As Dau and Preston point out, many of those on the Christian right who attack this show for positively portraying a queer family claim that it sabotages a "tradition" exemplified by the "proper" Victorian family. But in ten well-crafted essays, the contributors show how improper Victorian families could be--by exploring queer family structures within a diverse and compelling set of Victorian writings.

The 1851 census of Britain showed how diverse its families were. While defining the family as a "social unit" stereotypically "composed of husband, wife, children, and, ideally, servants," the authors write, "the census makes it clear that there wasn't simply one type of family but the existence of families 'variously constituted'" (6). Consequently, the book highlights families that "are not privileged, that do not fall within the category of model families, and that are often...accommodated and tolerated rather than embraced within Victorian literature" (6). While not unrealistically claiming that all Victorians were open minded, the contributors consider how far individual queer family members and queer family constructions were tolerated and, in some cases, even accepted.

Besides challenging popular notions of the "proper" Victorian family, Dau and Preston boldly reject the argument made in Judith (Jack) Halberstam's In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (2005): that family and reproduction always exist within a heteronormative and middle class construct. Positing "a dichotomy between family and queer life," the editors claim, Halberstam "maintains ahistorical notions of families and queer experiences" (4). This point is overstated. While some of Halberstam's assumptions about queer people and constructions of family may well be interrogated, her arguments about transgender subjectivity actually push against dichotomies. Furthermore, even though the editors claim that all their contributors reject Halberstam's arguments, a few of the essays utilize them. Nevertheless, the volume as a whole fills a need by freshly reconsidering how Victorian literature represents queer family structures.

According to the editors, in the first section, "Queervolutions," four contributors show "how particular Victorian texts . . . destabilize or bring into question contemporary understandings of the Victorian family" (10). Exploring Lewis Carroll's Alice books and Charles Dickens's Bleak House, Laura White and Shale Preston show how family structures in these books make room for queer characters and queer readings. According to White, Carroll's own realism, or perhaps cynicism, informs his mathematical explorations of non heteronormative family configurations only to conclude that "no relation can endure" (31). Wading on the other hand through the circuitous legalese of inheritance exemplified by the Jarndyce case, Preston finds a deep homoerotic connection between Esther Summerson and Ada as they raise Ada's son Richard. Both essays shed compelling new light on familiar works.

The next two essays show precisely why this book is necessary. Critics have not paid much attention to either William Sharp's neo-Pagan and Scottish nationalist writings or to the plays of Michael Field, the pseudonym of Katherine Bradley and her niece Edith Cooper. Yet all three writers were quite prolific. Taking Michael Field's queer identity as a given, Tracy Olverson uses the relation between Bradley and Cooper to underscore the point that queer people in the nineteenth century were not necessarily marginalized -- that in fact they were always an integral part of the family unit: "Katharine and Edith," Olverson writes, "were inextricably and immediately involved with their immediate family members as professional writers" (60). Furthermore, Olverson notes, their Roman dramas "challenge and disrupt traditional kinship structures and radically revise sexual relationships" (58). Thus Olverson illuminates the paradox behind the work of Michael Field: two stereotypically virginal spinsters who wrote numerous violent and sexually explicit and taboo narratives set in ancient Rome.

Moving beyond the individual family unit, Shaw considers how queer nationalist representation in neo-Pagan Scotland made the nation itself a family. In a close reading of Sharp's poetry and prose that underscores conflicts within a gender binary, Shaw calls to mind how easily paganism in ancient Celtic culture embraced what we would today call transgender positionalities. In Shaw's reading, the queer, wild, liminal space of Scotland itself and the rise of neo-Pagan nationalist sentiment in the face of proper British writing together show how broad and overarching queer spaces and the term "queer" can be.

In the second and strongest section of the book, "Queer Actually," three essays explore familial situations that would have been just as obviously queer to the Victorian reader as they are to us. Monica Flegel reads Count Fosco as an animal parent in The Woman in White; Clare Walker Gore outstandingly charts the intersections of queer subjectivity and disability in the works of Dinah Mulock Craik and Charlotte M. Yonge; and in one of the best pieces in the book, Ellen Brinks examines lesbianism in Elizabeth Anna Hart's The Runaway (1872), a onetime bestseller that is only now being rediscovered.

Flegel and Gore beautifully analyze the queer and intersecting identities in the novels they treat. Though Victorianists may suspect that nothing more remains to be said about the queerness of Wilkie Collins's masterpiece, Flegel articulates yet another way in which it contests everything we assume the Victorians held dear. Similarly, Gore notes that Victorian families made room for disability as well as queerness: "While disabled characters," she writes, "are generally excluded from the marriage plot because of the authors' unwillingness to write disability into reproductive heterosexual unions, they are not necessarily excluded from the families" (117). Queer identity is thus tied not just to sexual orientation, but rather to a more complete and comprehensive existence and lifestyle within the family unit and the culture at large.

Turning from the fiction of disability to Hart's Runaway, Brinks argues that this novel "challenges current generic classifications of Victorian girls' fiction and forces readers to rethink what kinds of gender roles or eroticized experiences within the family home were considered permissible for female characters" (134). Reading The Runaway with the aid of Halberstam's argument about queerness, within the larger historic context, and beside theories about Victorian children's literature, Brinks highlights the importance of rediscovering once-popular works that did not become canonical, but that paint a fuller picture of the everyday workings of Victorian culture and society by showing us what so many people were reading as well as teaching their children. This essay should make us wonder why the majority of Victorian novels studied up to this point work so hard to establish gender normative and heteronormative endings to queer narratives because, clearly, many popular novels did not. Since The Runaway--as Brinks notes-- was a bestseller until 1953, when it was removed from the public domain, we might infer that what we consider the "norm" of Victorian literature was perhaps molded in the mid-twentieth century. The Runaway, Brinks concludes, radically "creates a present space and imagines a future family for queer girls; it never rationalizes same-sex desire as mistaken or misplaced" (148).

In the final section, "Queer Connections," three essays juxtapose writings that have not often been previously considered in light of one another. Talia Schaffer's essay on cousin marriage in Austen and Brontë offers solid insights and compelling theoretical analysis, and with equal critical acumen, Lauren Hoffer and Sarah Kersh explore the links between Wilkie Collins and contemporary neo-Victorian author Sarah Waters. But the most outstanding piece is Alec Magnet's beautiful and melancholic reading of Tennyson's In Memoriam alongside Melville's Moby Dick. Both works, of course, have prompted queer theoretical readings as well as plenty of others. But in aiming to "demonstrate their affinity, their queer, archival, literary kinship, with each other while at the same time making themselves available to generations of queer readers" (191), Magnet's reading stunningly exemplifies a return to what reading through a queer lens originally set out to do. Magnet recalls those moments in mainstream literature where the queer reader can quietly stumble upon and gain strength from deep connections that offer a "nourishing, reparative, queer kinship" (191).

This impressive group of essays gathered by Dau and Preston nicely help to expand our view of Victorian literature and culture. Besides examining familiar and canonical works, this collection gives equal importance to writings once popular in the Victorian Era but now fallen into obscurity. This book thus whets our appetite and reminds us that we still have much of the nineteenth century to re-think and re-discover.

Ardel Haefele-Thomas is chair of LGBT Studies at City College of San Francisco.


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